Last week I had the pleasure of attending Retail Week Live, an annual event that brings together over 1500 brands and retailers to share insights and forge new connections. As retail and technology partnerships become more strategic, Salesforce joined retailers on topics such as marketing to the next generation, consumers rising expectations, how to build brand loyalty in an increasingly fluid market, creating workplace cultures comfortable with change, and the role of artificial intelligence.  

If you’re selling stuff, you’re knackered, frankly.”  Not so long ago, those words might have got backs up at Retail Week Live. But not anymore. There was a marked shift in the language being used by the 160 speakers across the sessions, with 6 key topics explored: 


1. Collaboration

When surviving in a harsh retail environment, partnerships can provide some shelter from the headwinds. Where technology was historically used by retailers to ‘keep the lights on’, it is no longer a utility, but essential to the strategic transformation of retail offerings and operations in an increasingly challenging environment.

With many brands having talked about 'putting the customer at the heart of everything we do', the changing relationship between brands and tech companies demonstrates a renewed commitment to deliver relevant, contextual and intimate consumer interactions. Brand leaders are embracing the retail renaissance through strategic partnerships. 


2. People Strategy

Digital transformation requires new skillsets and mindsets. If people are our most important asset, how can we find the right people, with the right skills? Dixons Carphone boss Alex Baldock told Retail Week about his plans to quadruple investment in store staff in the next three years, while Mars' UK CIO talked about the rise of the data scientist and flexible working.

Collaboration is essential across functions to deliver unified consumer experiences, and while we don't have consensus in the industry on the best model, people was a hot topic this year- from recruiting millennials, to a digital skills gap, to the right organisation structure. 


3. Business Models

Success doesn’t just rest on the tech – technology is the enabler for retailers to digitally transform, but success lies in strategic planning by the retailer to organise in such a way to capitalise on the data bedrock. Technology can be overwhelming, and one of the critical messages for retailers is to get back to basics and put the customer at the heart of their business model. New, innovative retailers are flipping the traditional models of customer service to act as the voice of the customer in product development decisions. 



4. Digital Transformation

As a consumer focused industry, it’s retail's responsibility to move faster, embrace change further, and continue to challenge one another harder.

Digital transformation is one of the most vital considerations for any retailer today, but what does it really mean? Retail Week Live saw discussions around personalisation, and how data is both the problem and the solution. Brands are still struggling to turn data into actionable insights. Peter Pritchard, CEO of Pets at Home, brought it back to the people:  “If you put price to one side, we have to be as good and better for choice, convenience, relevancy and trust.”

He added: “We understand emotion. While everyone is doing digital, we have a super power: our people. Most are starving their retail models of people and we’re doing the reverse.”


5. The role of the store

Creating a richly defined digital strategy is key for survival, but what does this mean for the future of the store? As technology continues to disrupt the shopping experience, it's easy to forget that for most retailers, the majority of revenue is still coming through the store, and it continues to be an indispensable part of the customer journey: Salesforce and Publicis.Sapient's 'Shopper First Retailing' report showed that 46% of shoppers prefer to make a purchase in a physical store, compared to 35% for laptops and 18% from smartphones.

This preference toward purchasing in stores is true across all age groups, even young shoppers, with 58% of Gen Z shoppers (those aged 18-24) preferring the physical store shopping experience. This was echoed at Retail Week Live: Focusing on more store-based technology solutions, Polo Ralph Lauren shared details of a new mobile promotional marketing trial to increase in-store redemption rates, sales conversion and frequency. 


6. The consumer of the future

Understanding and predicting consumer behaviour is integral to any business, but when it changes so often, it’s difficult to know where to start. As soon as we got a hold on Gen Z, then came Gen Alpha, with whole new horizon of expectations, personal ambitions, and a constant stream of access to information and experiences. With Millennials now the majority of the workforce, Retailers are looking further forward- Gen Z are seen as the new purchasing powerhouse. 

At Salesforce's panel on Instant Gratification, Amitabh Apte from Mars talked about sustainable cocoa farming, and how connecting to the consumer of the future on ethics, and leading with values, is the way of the future. He also echoed the mandate from Salesforce's Shopper-First report be where your consumers are. Companies’ marketing messages need to be clear about what they stand for so that their brands are not interpreted as uninvolved in or opposed to social causes important to Gen-Zers- and take a multi-faceted approach to social media.


The Retail Renaissance

When concluding this piece, I reflected on how day two of Retail Week Live began with a morning meditation, which to me was symbolic of the themes coming out of the two days. Today's world is ever more connected, busy, and noisy, and encouraging retailers to stop, find focus and get back to basics is reflective of the approach we're beginning to see in delivering a unified experience.

Many speakers talked about their humanity, their customer, and their values. While data is the rocket fuel behind the retail renaissance, at the heart of it is a community of retail leaders driven to create unified consumer experiences. 

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